Activist Groups Earn One-Week Stay On Evictions

| Resist!

Above photo: Santa Cruz police officers draw the ire of homeless campers and advocates near the San Lorenzo Park duck pond as SCPD arrived to evict them Monday. Shmuel Thaler/Santa Cruz Sentinel file.

District judge grants temporary restraining order.

Santa Cruz, CA – Local advocacy groups turned to the federal court system this week in the latest effort to prevent dispersal of a homeless encampment that swelled to an estimated 150 people this month.

In response, U.S. District Court of Northern California Judge Susan van Keulen granted an emergency temporary restraining order against the City of Santa Cruz, through Jan. 6, preventing it from shuttering San Lorenzo Park.

“The Court finds that Plaintiffs have shown that immediate and irreparable injury, loss, and/or damage will result to the movant before the adverse party can be heard in opposition,” van Keulen wrote in her order.

The Santa Cruz Homeless Union and Santa Cruz Food Not Bombs groups earlier filed a request with the San Jose court in response to the city’s Dec. 17 emergency order by the city manager. A fluctuating number of those people otherwise without shelter have lived at the park, in both managed and unmanaged camps, since April. A sufficient supply of alternative shelter options for those set to be fully dispersed from the week of Jan. 4 through Jan. 31 has not been identified, advocates have said.

Activists protesting the city’s efforts to clear out part of the park’s occupants have physically stymied police response there this week as they championed civil rights and health concerns. Law enforcement first backed down from protesters Monday in favor of waiting until “the potential for violence was lessened,” according to city spokeswoman Elizabeth Smith. In video footage circulated on social media, Police Chief Andy Mills and other police administrators were seen visiting the camp Tuesday, requesting protesters return county chain link fencing they had repurposed to blockade part of San Lorenzo Park.

“I’ve been working for the last two days, trying to find a solution for the people to stay someplace and I think I’m almost there, but this is not helping — to fortify this and to actually block the path of people who are trying to come and help,” Mills said in a posted recording.

Mills then was accused by one off-camera speaker of “gaslighting.” The chief later agreed not to clear the camp for the rest of Tuesday. In response to questions from former Santa Cruz City Council candidate Kayla Kumar, Mills added that while he had not necessarily identified enough shelter space for all the camp’s occupants, he was “doing what we can with the money that we have allocated to us.”

Smith, in a city statement issued late Wednesday in response to the suit, confirmed the city has continued efforts to identify shelter resources, “including working with the county to identify any available shelter beds, Project Roomkey rooms or spaces within the managed encampment at the Armory.” By Tuesday afternoon, she said, the city had identified both funds and a location for motel vouchers for most campers in the park, with the distribution of those vouchers planned for Friday.

“However, given the temporary restraining order through Jan. 6, the City will not be distributing vouchers as planned,” the statement reads. “Independent of today’s judicial action, the City will be dismantling and removing the stolen fencing erected around the encampment and continuing patrols in the area to ensure public safety and continued access to the park.”

Wednesday’s federal suit, filed by California Homeless Union/Statewide Organizing Council attorney Anthony Prince, echoes a similar and ultimately unsuccessful effort untaken by much of the same players — first in Santa Cruz County Superior Court and soon after in U.S. District Court in April 2019. In addition to the community groups, additional plaintiffs named in the latest suit include Ralph Tolley, Hannah Hegel, Chris Ingersoll and Alicia Avalos.

“Closure of San Lorenzo Park and the Benchlands, at this time, without providing adequate and available shelter space for every homeless individual has and will continue to result in the dispersal of a population already at greatly heightened risk for COVID-19,” the lawsuit states. “Already, as a direct result of ‘Phase One,’ of the City’s plan, individuals previously encamped at San Lorenzo Park have been observed alone, sleeping in downtown doorways and in residential neighborhoods where they are at heightened risk, particularly in the case of homeless women, including Plaintiffs Avalos and Hegel.”

The city-issued closure order, according to officials, stemmed from authorities determining that park conditions had become a public nuisance after arrests related to and reported neighbor complaints of illegal fires, trash, improperly discarded syringes, open drug use and defecation. The lawsuit comments that plaintiffs “vigorously dispute” the “inaccurate and pretextual description of the conditions” as described in a city memorandum announcing the pending park closures.

In last year’s round of lawsuits, Superior Court Judge Paul Burdick, in an emergency ruling, declined to prevent city officials from clearing out a large encampment on a strip of undeveloped city- and state-owned land between Highway 1 and the Gateway Plaza Shopping Center. Federal Judge Edward Davila then imposed a temporary pause on the camp’s eviction on April 23, 2019, but ultimately ruled a week later that plaintiffs in the homeless civil lawsuit “Quintero vs. City of Santa Cruz” had not shown irreparable harm or the likelihood of success in its case. City officials in both courts made assurances that alternative lodging was available for the unsheltered individuals.

Responding to activist’s concerns about breaking up a homeless encampment in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and contrary to federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, Smith pointed to city-authored question-and-answer responses on the topic posted at cityofsantacruz.com. The publication states that the CDC guidelines are not mandatory and suggests displaced homeless individuals will seek assistance from family and friends, will successfully get through limited shelter waitlists or may see increased space at the outdoor county-run camp near the National Guard Armory in DeLaveaga Park open up.

“Some individuals will move to camp in other parts of the City, and some individuals may move to camp in other parts of the County or state,” the city question and answer states. “The City understands that the closure of San Lorenzo Park in no way solves the issue of homelessness, and we expect to see smaller encampments in other areas.”

The city’s responses include a recommendation that those seeking shelter first fill out a Smart Path Assessment, with locations listed by calling 211.